'60s and '70s protest movements on EMU campus chronicled in new oral history projects

Two new oral history projects cover the Black Student Association's activities in 1969 and protests in Ypsilanti after the 1970 Kent State shootings.
Most people know something about the proliferation of American protest movements in the '60s and early '70s. They may even know that Ann Arbor was the birthplace of the activist group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). But what was going on more locally on Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) campus in Ypsilanti during that period? That's the focus of two new oral history projects created by oral history classes taught by EMU Lecturer and EMU Oral History Program Coordinator Matt Jones.

One project focuses on demands brought to the administration by the Black Student Association in 1969, an effort that led to the creation of the well-respected Department of Africology and African American Studies at EMU. Another project, called 5 Days in May, focuses on an explosion of protests on EMU's campus by a variety of student groups, just days after the notorious Kent State shootings of 1970. During this period, EMU students were grappling with big ideas, from the right to assemble and protest to racial equity and freedom of the press.

Black Student Association: A plan to occupy Pierce Hall 
Today, EMU has one of the longest-running African American Studies programs in the state of Michigan, but that wasn't always the case. When Harold Sponberg took over as EMU president in 1965, the university and the surrounding town were on the cusp of change, with the fledgling anti-war movement coming to town about the same time. In 1968, the SDS was formed in Ann Ann Arbor. By February 1969, the Black Student Association (BSA) had come up with a list of demands and a plan to occupy Pierce Hall, then the seat of EMU's administration.

"People like Sponberg were hanging on with their fingernails while cultural change was happening," Jones says. 

The Second Coming founder Frank Michels.Ypsilanti resident Frank Michels was a student attempting to start an underground newspaper called The Second Coming on campus during that period. He followed the movements of both the SDS and the BSA. BSA had several concerns, including the overwhelming whiteness of the student body and lack of Black studies. BSA members finally became frustrated in their attempts to get any kind of meaningful dialogue going, Michels says.

"So they had this plan to go in early and occupy Pierce Hall ... but the secret police had infiltrated virtually all student groups and knew in advance this was going to happen," Michels recalls. 

Sponberg called in the sheriff and the state police to guard Pierce Hall. Students weren't arrested inside the building, but some were stopped by police on their way out. Robert Smith, then an undergrad and one of the leaders of the Black student activists, says he doesn't know why the officers didn't arrest him. He says they seemed to pick and choose among those filing out of Pierce Hall.

A wave of protests followed, and Black students who hadn't yet been arrested staged a sit-in in front of the president's house and gathered along Forest Avenue. Smith gave a speech during the protest.

"I got up on this ledge and started talking to the crowd, demanding they release our brothers. The police and the assistant prosecutor were there, and I told them if they didn't release our brothers and sisters, we would go down to Detroit and bring back more of us to burn the motherfucker down," Smith says. 

At that point, Smith remembers the prosecutor pointing at him and saying, "Arrest him." Michels remembers the incident and even filmed some of Smith's speech.
Protests at EMU in 1970.
"They ran through the crowd trying to arrest Bob Smith, and beat people on their way to him," Michels says. Smith and several other BSA leaders were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot or lesser misdemeanors.

Smith says that reflecting on those times and talking with his "old comrades" for the oral history project was inspiring.

"It gave us a chance to reflect back on our activism and the impact we had on the university," Smith says. "Eastern now has one of the largest minority representations on a campus in the state, and it has one of the longest-going Black history programs in the state. That came about because of what happened in 1969."

Five Days in May: "It blew up the town."

The BSA's attempt to occupy Pierce Hall wasn't the end of protests on campus, though. In spring of 1970, many students across the country were radicalized by the Kent State shootings.

"May 4, 1970, was kind of like the baby boomers' 9/11," Michels says. "It was like the war had come home to campuses. Now they're killing students. Now they're carrying weapons and live ammo and shooting protesters."

Michels says that there had already been some student movement against the war, including protesting the presence of the U.S. Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps on campus. He'd been covering the protests in an underground newspaper called The Second Coming, which Sponberg and the university's regents hated and tried to quash.

"But then, all of a sudden, it exploded after Kent State. Kent State was May 4, and Eastern erupted three days later. A day before that, I was banned from the campus," Michels says.
EMU Oral History Program Coordinator and Lecturer Matt Jones.
Jones says "people would be amazed" by what was happening at EMU that spring. 

"Kids were signed up to be informants for the FBI. There was an underground newspaper being super critical of everything. Kids were rioting at night and going to class during the day, and their faculty supporters were being fired," Jones says. "It blew up the campus. It blew up the town."

Taking a page from the BSA's protests the previous year, protestors who were part of SDS, or another student group called Student Liberation Movement (SLaM), shut down several roads around EMU's campus with sit-ins for five days in May.

"Many of those protestors told us that the Black students basically taught them by example how to protest," Jones says.
EMU Oral History Program student Kat Hacanyan.
Student Kat Hacanyan worked on the 5 Days in May oral history project. She says she was enthralled by the experience and thinks lessons from the '60s and '70s are still relevant today.

"I think it's important to know that little uprisings like this might seem irrelevant in the bigger picture, but they show us that they made change in their communities," Hacanyan says. "If there's something people take from it, I hope it's that we have the power to make a change, even if it's a small change. Maybe they'll be inspired to speak out."

Hacanyan felt honored to be assigned the 5 Days in May material as a project when she later interned at the EMU Archives.

"When I started working in the archives, I wasn't expecting to be given this project to take on, but it was a nice turn of events," Hacanyan says. "I had seen this project in its very early stages and was able to take it to completion." 

Hacanyan reviewed and edited transcripts, edited audio, and gathered visuals to complement the audio, uploading about 100 photographs of student movements on campus.
Kat Hacanyan and Matt Jones at the EMU Archives.
"They range from photos of the activists interviewed to links to some of the subversive student literature of the time like Frank Michels' The Second Coming and Thomas Moors' The Obsidian. There are photos of faculty fired for distributing these publications. I think there are even photos from a Vomit-In staged at McKenny Union, in protest of the Marine recruiters posted there," Jones says. "There is so much more that we want to do, but our budget and small but mighty staff keep us from getting too crazy."

Hacanyan says the project is "not necessarily over yet."

"We have a few things in the works. More is going to come from 5 Days in May," she says.

You can find both oral history projects and previous EMU oral history projects here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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